Gruff UK rockers go from self-parody to self-realization

Joe Talbot didn’t appear onstage with Garbage at Shaky Knees, but he felt like a featured guest. During the veteran alt-rock band’s set at the Atlanta music festival two weekends ago, singer Shirley Manson sang the praises of the IDLES frontman, her fellow Shaky Knees performer and recent podcast guest. She praised him as a good man who treats women with respect, a rare beacon of decency in the music industry. She also openly thirsted for him, explaining that it’s okay for adults to be in love with popular musicians and that she’s Joe Talbot. Her enthusiasm was uncontrollable.

Manson was far from the only person at Shaky Knees who was excited about IDLES. The Bristol quintet’s T-shirts were all over Central Park that weekend, especially on Saturday, when they were due to perform a few hours after Garbage. IDLES played one of the party’s smaller stages after dark, but the collective interest in the band suggested they could have easily secured a spot on the main stage. Since the release of their debut album brutalism in 2017 they have become one of the most beloved new rock bands in the world – and one of the most polarizing. What do they say? Garbage’s treasure is someone else’s garbage?

I have long found myself trapped between the IDLES fanatics and the haters. This group’s gruff, explosive twist on post-punk is undeniably rousing. Talbot is also a formidable figure, a ferocious carnival barker capable of driving his audience insane. He is clearly a thoughtful, charismatic man, a knot of muscle and nervous energy at the center of his band’s bombast. But Talbot’s attempts at progressive political reporting have often made me roll my eyes the same way the Democratic Party establishment tries to wake up. It’s not that I doubted or disagreed with his beliefs, it was just that the way he expressed them made me shudder at times.

Seen through one lens, Talbot Roy Kent is from Ted Lasso, a hyper-masculine British villain with a warm, gooey heart. Seen by another, he is John Oliver, who tries in vain to rattle Donald Trump by calling him “Drumpf”. IDLES pretty clearly joined the #resist crowd by naming their second album Joy as an act of resistance in 2018, but they went a few steps further than last year Ultra Mono, album guitarist Mark Bowen has since described as “kind of a caricature of our identity that helped us see it for all its flaws.” Despite songwriting input from esteemed influences such as David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds, and Jehnny Beth of Savages, the album’s virtues were overshadowed by lyrics that felt Talbot was trying way too hard, whether Grab Trump by the pussy on “Mr. Motivator” or solemnly declare on “Grounds” that “I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful.” Maybe it was well-intentioned, but it played like a self-parody, like the rock- ‘n’ roll equivalent of a ‘Notorious RBG’ t-shirt.

When Ultra Mono fell, I was ready to give up IDLES. A year later they made me a fan. Finally seeing them in concert at Shaky Knees helped a lot; their noise-rock bar-fight approach feels exponentially more powerful in the live setting, a reminder that this band is all about whipping up gnarly waves of mutilation, at least as much as fiercely growling slogans. Beyond that, with their new album, they’ve pushed and broken their sound in fascinating ways while curbing some of their more blatant lyrical impulses. on its peaks, CRAWLER, due out Friday, is as visceral as any IDLES album, but it shows them using their formidable power in increasingly interesting ways.

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